Willi Lehner is a nomad as cheesemakers go, renting space at other creameries to make his cheeses. Yet he may be the state’s most rooted cheesemaker thanks to a unique advantage: He owns a cave.
In fact, he built the cheese-aging cave himself in the ground near Blue Mounds, fronting it with a wooden door and enormous blocks of local limestone to create a mythical-looking place that fits perfectly with the local obsession with trolls. Inside Bleu Mont Dairy’s two cave rooms (each with different moisture), cheeses age between 58 and 48 degrees year-round. Newer cheeses are turned daily by employees Willi dubs his “cave slaves”; older cheeses get weekly turnings.
Willi’s products include Gouda, Havarti and Swiss. But his best-known line is bandaged cheddar, which is wrapped in muslin to prevent cracks that would admit mold. On the outside of the wheel, however, cave-loving molds flourish, giving Willi’s cheese a far earthier flavor than the cheddars most Americans know. “Cheeses aged in plastic are pretty one-dimensional,” he says.
Raised in Wisconsin by Swiss immigrants, Willi perfected the cheese-making skills he’d first learned from his father “on an Alp, where I made the connection between what cows eat and the final product.” It seems he’s also landed on an underground connection between a cheese’s quality and where it grows up.